They keep their formation even after passing through gasoline pumps, oil pipelines and filters, so engine owners don't have to pour in the additive to each gas tank.
When the flow in a pipe becomes too turbulent, these mega-supramolecules release their links and then reconnect when the pieces meet again. This allows the polymer to regain its explosion-preventing properties.
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It's the long molecules that ultimately form the big droplets when the fuel is ruptured under pressure. And the bigger the droplet, the less likely an explosion will occur, Kornfield explained.
"It's the initial mist that prevents people form getting out of the vehicle," she said. "If there's not an initial explosion, (the larger droplets) gives you several minutes to get out."
The polymer compound has has been tested in both aviation fuel and diesel fuel and has an unexpected side benefit: 12 percent fewer emissions of soot, also known as fine particulates.
The EPA currently requires diesel engine manufacturers to use special filters in the engines of cars or trucks that burn diesel fuel to reduce the amount of soot, which contributes to a host of respiratory ailments, including heart attacks and lung cancer.
At the moment, the new fuel isn't quite ready to be used in gasoline, which is much more flammable and lighter in weight than diesel or jet fuel.
"We are cautiously optimistic that it will make a difference in gasoline," Kornfield said.
Frankie Wood-Black spent 25 years as a chemist in the petrochemical industry and now works as an emergency planner in Oklahoma. She says the concept of explosion-proof fuel is intriguing and should be scaleable to larger quantities needed for further real-world tests. So far, the Caltech researchers have only come up with small amounts of the compound for lab testing.
"I'm going to be anxious to see what else they come up with," Wood-Black said.
Kornfield says her team is working with the Pentagon to see if the fuel additive will work in a small helicopter engine, the first step in more widespread use.